By Ron Dungan The Arizona Republic
This time of year, David Bremson sees plenty of rescues in the Superstition Wilderness, like the 51-year-old woman who had to be pulled from the mountains for the second time in three months Wednesday after she got lost seeking the legendary Lost Dutchman's gold.
Typically, the weather is nice. People go hiking, hunting or seeking their fortune, and when someone gets lost or injured, search-and-rescue volunteers are called. Bremson, operations chief of the Central Arizona Mountain Rescue Association, doesn't mind doing rescues. But he has a message.
He doesn't believe the Lost Dutchman's gold exists, so his advice is don't endanger yourself looking for it. But if you do get in a jam, his team is not going to bill you for their work.
"Most of the body recoveries we've done out of the Supes have been Dutch hunters," Bremson said.
A Dutch hunter who got lucky twice was Robin Bird, the woman who went searching for the fabled gold and ended up flirting with death before she was rescued late Wednesday night.
Bird also had to be rescued in December while doing the same thing.
This time, she was found lying in the mud along the Bluff Springs Trail at about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. She was unresponsive and suffering from hypothermia and severe dehydration, said Tim Gaffney, spokesman for the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.
"Had they not found her when they did, she would have succumbed from the elements," he said. "She was not prepared to survive another night out there."
But Bird was hardly the only hiker who needed help this week.
At 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, rescuers found three men who had gotten lost in the Superstitions on Tuesday. They had met Bird on the trail and asked for directions, and she steered them wrong.
At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, a 21-year-old Arizona State University student was rescued after he failed to return from a hike on Saturday. "This is not an unusual amount of rescues," Bremson said. "It's fairly normal."
Rescues often occur under the radar. But when a cluster like this makes news, people wonder: Who pays for the rescues? How much do they cost? Ever since Arizona passed the so-called Stupid Motorist Law in 1994, Bremson said, the question gets asked: Should there be a stupid-hiker law?
Search-and-rescue workers say no.
"It seems that the only people who don't want to charge for search and rescue are the people who go out there and perform the rescues," Bremson said. "There are no mountain-rescue teams or search-and-rescues that want to charge. We're the people that spend our time and our money and our lives doing this, and we don't want to charge for rescues."
Search-and-rescue teams train on weekends, on their own time. They buy much of their own gear, taking donations to help defray costs.
"How do you determine stupid?" Bremson said. "People may not be well-equipped, they may not be experienced. There are already laws in the books that cover being negligent."
The problem is not unique to the Superstitions. Two Northern Arizona University students were rescued from the Humphreys Peak area north of Flagstaff on Sunday.
Aaron Dick, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office's search-and-rescue coordinator, said that if people think they will be billed for a rescue, they may hesitate to call. If they delay, darkness or bad weather could make the rescue more difficult. Studies have shown that in places that charge for rescues, people are reluctant to call.
Under state law, counties are responsible for rescues. The process varies by county but typically begins with a call to the local sheriff's office. That information is usually passed on to a volunteer rescue group, according to its location and expertise. The Central Arizona Mountain Rescue Association, for example, is skilled at canyoneering and cave rescues. Other groups use horses or tracking dogs.
Counties took over rescue operations in 1971. Since then, the state has maintained a fund to help defray search-and-rescue expenses. That fund is typically about $200,000, said James Langston of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.
The money can pay for a helicopter if one is needed. Frequently, the Department of Public Safety sends a rescue helicopter. The agency does not charge counties for the first hour and a half of its time.
"When you look at all the (outdoor) activity that goes on in the state in a year, that's really peanuts," he said. "If one life was lost, is $200,000 too cheap? Or is it not enough?"
The National Park Service collects money for search-and-rescue operations out of admission fees.
"The cost of National Park Service search and rescue, nationwide, is less than 1 cent per user," Bremson said. "That's nothing, considering what they pay to clean up after people."
Bremson said his team spends about $40,000 a year, most of it out of members' own pockets.
"That's a pretty good bang for the buck," he said.
Bremson said the real problem is not the cost of searches but people who aren't prepared for the backcountry. People who hike in city parks need to be prepared when they hike remote areas.
"Bring a cellphone and a bottle of water, that's their mantra," he said. "Now, they go out into the backcountry, where one bottle of water will last 15 or 20 minutes, and their cellphone doesn't work."
The consequences can be deadly. In July 2010, three Utah men disappeared in the Superstitions while searching for the Lost Dutchman mine. Their bodies weren't found until hikers stumbled upon them the following January.
Search-and-rescue team leaders say a map and compass are more reliable than a phone or GPS. And basic items such as food, water, extra clothing and matches can help keep you comfortable if you must wait for rescue.
Rescuers ask people to point to their map and show where they got lost, Bremson said.
"Well, none of them have a map. People are becoming more and more isolated from the outdoors because of the amount of time they spend indoors."
Contributing: Arizona Republic reporter Jim Walsh